Rev. Deacon Ann Wood
“Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.”
Today, we’re remembering one of our patron saints – St. James, the Apostle. He’s one of the three Jameses mentioned in the New Testament. Along with his brother, John, he was one of the disciples originally called by Jesus and was among the privileged group who were close to him. James and John were sons of a prosperous, Galilean fisherman, Zebedee. James witnessed the transfiguration and the raising of Jairus’ daughter. He was the first disciple to be martyred – killed at the hands of Herod. Tradition has it that his body was taken to Spain, where he’s one of the most popular saints. The other two are James, the Lesser and James of Jerusalem, in case you’re interested.
Our James and his brother John, are the two disciples who feature most in our gospel reading today. Their misunderstanding of Jesus and the nature of his Kingdom is the opportunity for Jesus to teach them - and us - about servanthood. In so doing, Jesus does it again! He turns our worldly values upside down! As he did so often throughout the gospels, and wants to do in our own lives, Jesus reminds his followers that we have much to learn about the nature of his Kingdom. In Matthew’s version of our Gospel reading, the mother of James and John approaches Jesus to ask him for a favor. She wishes her sons to have a place of prominence in Jesus’ Kingdom. Like many of us, she wanted what, she believed in her heart, was the best situation for her children – but she misjudged the nature of the Kingdom. She and they are ambitious and thinking in terms of personal reward and personal distinction. Many of us tend to judge our accomplishments, our success in the world, or our place in society, based on the amount of money in our bank accounts, by how far up the corporate ladder we’ve climbed, the elegance of our home or what influence or control we have of those in our power. To that mother, to the other disciples and down the ages to us, Jesus said – “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” Jesus cites his own life as an example to follow: “...just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” Later, the apostle Paul wrote “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who though he was in the form of God . . . emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” (Phil. 2)
David Brooks, in his new book “The Second Mountain”, maintains that those who serve others, who become other-centered, rather than self-centered, exude joy in their lives. “The world tells them to want individual freedom” he says, “but they want intimacy, responsibility and commitment. The world wants them to climb the ladder and pursue success, but they want to be a person for others”. What might this kind of thinking mean for us and the way we conduct our lives? Does that joy become a part of us when we serve others? Jesus makes it clear what he calls us to do.
Just prior to our reading, Jesus and his followers are on their final journey to Jerusalem. Jesus takes the disciples aside and tells them that when he reaches Jerusalem, he will be handed over to the priests and scribes, who will condemn him to death. Surprisingly, immediately following this piece of shocking, unbelievable news, the mother of James and John approaches Jesus asking him for a favor on behalf of her sons – namely that they should be chosen to sit one at his right hand and one at his left in his Kingdom. Rather than becoming angry with her, Jesus kindly and gently asks James and John if they will be able to suffer in the same way that he is to suffer – whether they can drink the same “cup”. But then, Jesus lets them know that the granting of places of privilege in his Kingdom isn’t for him to give. That honor belongs to his Father.
Hearing the mother of James and John trying to curry favor with Jesus, the rest of the disciples are understandably angry and jealous for their own positions in the Kingdom. Their arguing catches Jesus’ attention, and he calls them all to him and explains what they need to do to become great or to become leaders. They need to serve others. He cites his own life as an example of a leader who is on earth to serve, rather than to be served – someone who will give his own life for others.
Greatness doesn’t consist of commanding others to do things for you, but consists of doing things for others. Jesus gives them – and us – a new set of values. How do we live out these values? How many people have we helped? It’s not the number of committees we’ve served on, how many material possessions we may have, or the number of people we may control. Jesus himself serves, as he calls his followers to do. He’s not the conquering earthly king or mighty leader reigning in despotic power. He demonstrates heaven’s greatness in suffering love and sacrificial service.
James and John say that they will be able to suffer, to “drink the same cup” as Jesus, and, in fact, they do. The experiences of James and John reflect the two levels of suffering involved in drinking that “cup”. James endured a short, sharp and bitter struggle. We heard in our second reading this morning how he became the first apostle to die for Jesus. John’s servanthood, or “cup”, is different. He lived a long life - it’s believed that he lived to be nearly 100 years old – survived threats on his life and exile to the island of Patmos. He’s an example of how service can build us, change us and help us bring joy to everyone we meet.
How committed are we to following Christ, to following his commands/edicts/rules for living, to being servants, giving of ourselves, being other-centered? Many of you are involved in a servant ministry – 2nd Helpings, Whitney’s Pantry, coffee hour, the gardening team and the Emmaus Companions are a few that come to mind. There are many examples of people here helping others or working for the good of the community. The diaconate is an example of a servant ministry. At ordination, the Bishop, speaking to the ordinand says “God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely”. Deacons carry out these commands in a variety of ways. There are those who minister to the homeless, while others have a prison, hospital or college presence. Still others work with veterans, the addicted and would-be immigrants. One of my tasks as a deacon, is to serve at the altar – prepare the table for the Eucharist, assist with the distribution of the elements and clean up afterwards. It’s a part of my ministry which gives me joy.
Serving others, as I’m sure you’ve found, brings its own special happiness and joy. David Brooks, again in his new book, maintains that “The more you are living a committed life well, the more joy will be your steady state, the frame of mind you carry around with you and shine on others. You will become a joyful person.” Brooks also maintains that witnessing someone else serving others brings a sense of joy to the on- looker. He tells the story of an incident when a group of people are riding home together through a snowstorm. They pass an elderly lady standing in her driveway, holding a snow shovel. One of the male passengers asks to be dropped off at the next intersection. Thinking that he must be near home, they let him out of the car. Instead of going into some nearby house, he walks up to the lady, takes her shovel and starts shoveling her driveway. One of the passengers in the car who witnesses this deed recalls that she –and I quote - “felt like jumping out of the car and hugging this guy. I felt like singing and running or skipping and laughing; telling everybody about his deed. I was joyous, happy, smiling, energized.” – end quote – and this reaction was just from witnessing a kind and helpful action!
In this world, this culture, that judges success and happiness by the number of our material possessions, or by the power we wield in our family, neighborhood, job or society, we would do well to remember Jesus’ words to his disciples: “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave”. Do we want to experience the joy that comes from serving others? Do we want to live a Christ-like life? Are we ready to have our worldly values turned upside down or do we want the greatness, prestige and accolades of the world? It’s our choice! AMEN
Rev. Deacon Ann Wood
Before I begin, I’d just like to share a bit of trivia, written by Bishop Michael Curry in his book “The Power of Love”. It’s related to our Gospel reading this morning from the 21st chapter of John:
. . . some scholars say chapter 20 ends the gospel. But if you look in your Bible, you’ll see there’s another chapter. And scholars have all sorts of theories about whether 21 is an addition, an extension or an appendix. I’m not a scholar. I’m a country preacher, and I know preachers, and you do too. I’ve got a feeling John finished his sermon in chapter 20, the plane was landing and he remembered something else, and he took off and came around again. That’s what happened.” What’s your theory?
Jesus said “Remember I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt.28:20)
“Remember I am with you always, even to the end of the age” – a promise that Jesus made to the disciples 2,000 years ago, that is also true for us today.
How do you experience that promise from God the Father/Mother, Jesus, the Son or God the Holy Spirit? “Remember, I am with you always.” Do you hear words of comfort, of healing or get a sensation of peace and tranquility? Perhaps you receive “marching orders” like Peter in the Gospel story and Paul in our first reading this morning. I suspect that most of us don’t experience God in quite such dramatic ways. We might receive words of wisdom when we pray, read scripture, sit in silence or meditate. We might hear God’s message to us through the words of someone else. Often messages are unexpected and quite often not recognized immediately for what they are.
In our Gospel story this morning, the disciples didn’t immediately recognize Jesus when he called to them. It was that time just before dawn, when the light is gray, misty and hazy. They’d been out fishing all night without a resulting catch, were tired and disheartened. Then Jesus called to them from the shore. “Children you have no fish, have you?” . . . “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” They followed Jesus’ directions and were successful. John, one of the disciples, then realized that it was Jesus calling to them, (He’d addressed them as children after all), and he told the rest of the crew. Simon Peter became so excited that he threw on his tunic and jumped into the sea, so that he could be the first to greet Jesus.
He did indeed reach the shore first, while the rest of the disciples hauled in their catch. What greeted them was Jesus preparing breakfast for them – Jesus is always practical; he knew that the men had had a tiring night and needed food, so he took care of their bodily needs first. When they were done, he addressed Simon Peter, asking him if he loved Jesus. Three times, Jesus asked the question – giving Peter the opportunity to affirm his love and redress the three denials he’d given, following Jesus’ capture and interrogation by Pilate. Once he affirmed his love, then Jesus gave Simon Peter his “marching orders” – “Feed my lambs” . . . “Tend my sheep” and finally “Feed my sheep”. Thus, Peter became a great shepherd of Christ’s people. Peter was transformed. His shame at having denied Jesus three times was lifted. He listened, heard Jesus’ words and was willing to learn. Peter’s experience of Jesus was a gentle time of healing and encouragement.
Paul’s experience of God occurred somewhat more dramatically. According to the story in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul was doing the business of the Pharisees, having one goal in mind, which was to scatter and murder the early followers of Jesus. He’d gone to the High Priest, asking for arrest warrants to take with him to the meeting places in Damascus. On the road to Damascus, a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground. A voice asked “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? He asked, “Who are you Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” When Paul got up, he was blind. His companions had to lead him by the hand into Damascus. He neither ate nor drank for three days. In the meantime, Ananias, the person who was called to help in Paul’s conversion, had his own experience of God in a vision. Initially Ananias questioned the directions Jesus gave him to enable Paul to see again. He’d heard of Paul’s hatred for the followers of Jesus and really questioned if Jesus knew what he was doing! Jesus’ response was simple: “Go”. Ananias went. Paul subsequently received his sight back. It was through Ananias that Paul received his “marching orders”. “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will”, Ananias says, “to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice, for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard. And now, why do you delay? Get up, be baptized and have your sins washed away”. (I like this sense of ‘hurry up and get on with it; what are you waiting for’ attitude.) Paul thus became God’s chosen personal representative to the Gentiles, to kings and to the Jews. Sometimes, like Ananias, we do need to question the words we hear. Is this you, Lord? Is this really what you want? Are my thoughts and wishes getting in the way - but then what happens if we don’t pay attention or obey God’s directives?
I think of the story of Jonah and his mis-adventures, when he didn’t follow God’s orders to go to Ninevah. Jonah didn’t want to go to Ninevah – his own ego and nationalistic feelings got in the way. Because he disobeyed, Jonah ended up in the belly of a large fish and was nearly responsible for the deaths of the folk he was sailing with in the boat. If you haven’t read the Book of Jonah recently, do – it’s only 4 chapters. God can and does transform our mistakes, but we often suffer first before God sets us on the right path, or before we come to our senses and decide to follow God’s will. Sometimes, as in Jonah’s and Paul’s cases, it takes something dramatic to get us to change direction. Sometimes, we’re led where we don’t particularly want to go and we rebel.
My son-in-law, Bill, comes to mind. He’s a pastor in the Presbyterian Church. He was told that he needed to leave the parish where he’d spent the last ten years, but he didn’t want to have to move house. His youngest child had two more years to go to finish high school – the high school he’d been attending from middle school on; the high school from which his two older siblings had graduated. An opening occurred in a parish close to home, which would not have involved a house move. He applied, and became the church’s first choice, but there were numerous complications. At the same time, he heard via a colleague, of another opening in a parish further from home. Bill paid no attention. The first church fell through, much to his disappointment. He’s now following through on the second church and things are looking much more positive. Had he paid attention to the words of his colleague, he would have saved himself and his family some suffering and disappointment. Like many of us tend to do, he ignored the message from his colleague.
Paying attention to God’s words that come to you via others is important. I suspect that I’ve mentioned this example before, but it bears telling again in this context. I’d been “let go” from my paralegal position and was wondering about my future. What did God want me to do next? How could I serve God? I went to a meeting, where I sat next to a woman I barely knew, but who was a member of my parish. I told her of my predicament. She asked a couple of questions and then suggested that I visit Fr. Bolton in Springfield. Fr. Bolton headed a group studying clinical pastoral education. I listened to my fellow parishioner, followed through on her suggestion and felt like I’d found my true ministry at last. Jesus has plans for each one of us and will let us know what they are, if we but listen to Him.
Sometimes, Jesus comes to us when we’re most in need, as he did to the disciples on their unsuccessful fishing trip – when we’re feeling tired out, sad, overwhelmed or worried. Feeling tired and worried, I experienced God’s presence driving down I91 at 2 o’clock in the morning. I’d just received a phone call telling me that my husband had been involved in an automobile accident in Connecticut and had been taken to BayState Hospital in Springfield. On that occasion, as I drove down the highway and prayed, I felt a sense of peace come over me and a sureness that he would be alright. He was!
My brother-in-law, Jonathan, experienced God in a dream when he was feeling distraught about his daughter’s safety. She’d recently been married, realized what a terrible mistake she’d made and left her new husband without telling anyone where she was going or with whom she might be staying. Needless to say, my sister and brother-in-law were frantic with worry while they tried to find out where she’d gone. None of her friends could shed any light on the situation. Her new husband was very angry and believed that her parents must know where she was. One night, a week or so later, my brother-in-law was woken by a felt presence in the room. He thought it was his deceased father-in-law. Jonathan heard a voice reassuring him that his daughter was safe, that everything would work out eventually, but that he, Jonathan, had to take the lead and be the responsible father during the unpleasantness that was to follow. This was not a role he would’ve undertaken without having had this prompting. Jonathan and my sister were reassured and thankful for this experience of God’s loving care.
Last week, we heard about another post-Easter appearance by Jesus to the disciples as he had promised them before he died. They were hiding in a locked room for fear of being arrested. They also were feeling sad and distraught. Things with their leader hadn’t worked out as they’d hoped or thought they would. Jesus came to them where they were, as they were – just as he did to Bill, to Jonathan and to me – just as he does to each one of us here and now. Perhaps you’ll experience Him when you receive communion this morning, listen to the readings from scripture or hear the music. Perhaps you experience God when you walk the labyrinth, when you walk in the woods or stand on the sea shore and marvel at the beauty around you. Perhaps you’re in need of an experience of God right now – to comfort, heal, or strengthen you, or just to receive a sense of uplifting joy. If so, I pray that you will have that experience. Remember, Jesus has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age. We know that Jesus keeps his promises. AMEN.
Rev. Deacon Ann Wood
When the 10 o’clock service in the Winter Sanctuary ends, the space will be transformed from a worship space into a space for our social gathering – for conversation and coffee. This is a rather mundane example of space and function being transformed or changed. Less mundane examples might be the faces of a couple in love on their wedding day – faces transformed by love from the stresses of wedding preparations – or the face of a mother seeing her newborn child following the stresses of labor. All of these examples are quite different from the God-centered and glory-filled moments that we’ve heard about in two of our readings this morning. People, as well as spaces, may be transformed, physically, as well as emotionally. Those who witness a transformation may also experience transformation themselves, as did Jesus’ disciples and Aaron and the Israelites, even though their transformation was short-lived. When we think of transformation, we generally think of change, a change in condition, nature or character, sometimes a change so great that it alters the person or place out of recognition entirely. Transformations can be as mundane as changing our worship space, to those that are life changing, or to the ultimate experience of God-with-us in glory that we heard about in our readings from Exodus and from Luke’s gospel. The latter we tend to name as transfigurations. They are invested with a spiritual or elevated character. When might such God-moments occur, in what ways and why? What other helpful tidbits might we glean from these two stories?
Before considering the “whys” and the “wherefores”, let’s step back a little and look at the context of the stories. Before the Exodus story of Moses’ receiving the tablets that was just read, Moses and the Israelites had left Egypt. Moses, being concerned about his authority over and his ability to lead his people, is anxious that God should accompany him on their journey to the promised land – the land flowing with milk and honey – but the people have so angered God that God tells Moses that God will send an angel to show them the way, but will not go himself, “or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people”, God says. Moses intercedes with God on behalf of the Israelites. As a result of Moses’ pleading, God shows God’s grace towards a fallen and recalcitrant people, is forgiving and promises to replace the tablets of the law that had been broken. God shows God’s delight by appearing before Moses on the mountain. Moses is transformed. Aaron and the people were witnesses to Moses’ glory at the foot of the mountain when he came down from his time with God. We’re told that he was with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights. Whether this is accurate or not, it demonstrates to us the need for prayer and time to be alone with God.
The account of Jesus’ transfiguration is recorded in all three synoptic gospels – Mark, Matthew and Luke – and all are very similar. Jesus, like Moses, we’re told, went up on a mountain to pray. He needed to be quiet, to be closer to and to connect with God. Jesus took with him three of his closest disciples, who became witnesses to the event itself. Just before our gospel account begins, we’re told of Jesus’ recent visit to Caesarea Philippi. Here he shared with Peter, James and John that he wasn’t the kind of Messiah they were expecting – someone who would take over as ruler of their political universe – but that, in fact, the opposite would occur. He was going to be reviled by the authorities, undergo great suffering and be killed. What a shock that would be to his followers. I think Jesus knew that they would need reassurance for the test and trial that would come upon them also. Although Peter had recently declared that Jesus was the Messiah, I suspect that hearing Jesus’ words, he might wonder and question his statement. The journey to Jerusalem that Jesus was preparing to undertake was so momentous that I wonder if he didn’t need confirmation from God that he was doing God’s will. Jesus didn’t go to his friends for affirmation that he was doing the right thing, or ask himself what he wished to do. He went apart from the crowds to pray. There, on the quiet mountain slopes, he received what he and the disciples needed – a double approval of his decision – a visit from Moses, the law-giver and Elijah, the greatest prophet, followed by God’s appearance through the cloud.
Like Jesus, both Moses and Elijah had their most intimate experiences with God on mountains – Moses on Mt. Sinai, and Elijah on Mt. Horeb. We’re told in Luke’s story that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus about his forthcoming journey and subsequent death, as though they might be corroborating and supporting him to continue with his decision. Then, at the end of the account, a cloud overshadows the group and God’s voice is heard saying “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him”. Peter, James and John receive confirmation of who Jesus is – God’s Son, the Messiah. They, too, are transformed by their experience -though the results took a bit of time and growth on their part.
The transformations of both Jesus and Moses were physical, as well as life-changing. Their experience with God changed their appearance – their faces shone and Jesus’ clothing became dazzling white. Moses’ face shone so brightly that the Israelites couldn’t bear to look at him and his face had to be veiled. Both transformations offered their witnesses an opportunity to experience God’s glory. Could the veil signify a lack of understanding on the part of the Israelites, or were they really so dazzled by the brightness shining from his face?
Have you witnessed seeing God’s presence in someone’s face? Do you want to know more about their experience? Might you also have experienced being transformed like the disciples and the Israelites? God-moments might be in the form of dreams or visions, as well as during times of prayer and meditation. Unfortunately, we’re not very good at sharing these kinds of experiences with others. Do we fear ridicule if we share these moments, fear that we won’t be believed or fear of being thought crazy? Episcopalians, in general, aren’t very good at talking about such things, which is sad because there’s so much to be gained. It brings the listener, as well as the person experiencing transformation, closer to God. But, we’re in good company – we’re told in Luke’s account that Peter, James and John told no-one of their experience at the time!
Some churches provide time during a regular weekly service for parishioners to share experiences of transformation, of God moments. It brings these incidents into the realm of normal conversation and helps people to realize that they are not odd, strange or alone. Even though we may not have this opportunity at Sts. James & Andrew, I would encourage us to share with others we trust our experiences of God-filled moments.
The disciples, we’re told, were fully awake when they saw Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Previously, they had been “weighed down with sleep”. How often do we miss things because our minds are asleep? Are they closed to exploring new ideas? Sometimes, I think we don’t want to face our questions and doubts or acknowledge any disturbing thoughts. Several things can wake us from this sleepiness. Sorrow, love and a sense of need, to name a few, will jolt us out of our lethargy. What caused the disciples to wake I wonder? We can only surmise that it was the bright light of God’s glory. Fortunately, for us, they woke enough to be witnesses to, and eventually tell us about this amazing scene. They were so awed by what they witnessed, that they wanted to hang on to the scene as long as possible. Peter suggests building three shelters on the mountain to keep Moses, Elijah and Jesus there. Unfortunately, or maybe, fortunately, we can’t live our lives on the mountain top. We have to come down to living the rest of our ordinary lives, while, hopefully, retaining the effects of the experience in our minds and hearts.
I’m reminded of an experience I had a number of years ago. I was attending a healing conference and was asked to pray for a fellow Brit. He was someone who had the gift of healing himself and I felt a little intimidated praying for him. I knew he he’d been going through a difficult and unhappy divorce, so I put my insecurities aside and prayed for him. When I finished, his face and eyes were shining and he shared with me that he’d been taken to the top of a mountain in Wales – there’s the mountain motif again - where he used to hike as a teenager. There he’d experienced God’s healing love. For him it was a transformative experience. For me, as a witness, it was a confirmation of my ability to be a conduit for God’s healing. We both had to come down from the mountain top and resume our normal lives, but the powerful memory and its influence have stayed with me and sustained me over the years.
Another example I can think of is that of Charles Colson of Watergate fame. Do you remember him? The seven months he spent in federal prison, became for him, an opportunity to get to know God and a turning point in his life and behavior. He was so transformed by his experience that he changed from being the so-called “hatchet man” and law-breaker in President Nixon’s administration to becoming, on his release, an evangelical Christian minister and the founder of a non-profit prison fellowship ministry. St. Francis of Assisi, who as a young man, led a rather dissolute life, after reportedly hearing the voice of God while he was in prison, went on to found a leper colony, the women’s order of St. Clare, and had a following of Franciscan friars to whom he preached a Christian religion favoring a life of poverty.
Obviously, not all transformations are in the same category as the transfigurations of Moses and Jesus, but vary in intensity and impact. However, they all, whether large or small, bring some change in us and confirmation that God is with us always. Generally, they occur when we’ve been intentional in prayer, when we have a great need, like Jesus and the disciples, need direction and assistance, like Moses, or sometimes when God speaks through us to someone else – and sometimes when we least expect them. May we continue to be blessed by God-filled moments and be willing to share our stories to encourage others. I pray that we may stay awake to God and attentive to God’s presence in our lives. AMEN.
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